hacker_web.jpgMERIDEN, Conn. (AP) — In a corner of a Panera Bread store in Meriden, amid the clatter of dinner plates and orders recited over a warbling sound system, a group of men and a woman gathered recently, laptops open. They threw around terms like “bot-nets” and “onion routers” with ease, talked about microcontrollers and how to crack into a computer database should the need arise to test their own computer defenses. 

This is a collection of computer “hackers,” creative innovators, pushing the boundaries of technology. And hackers aren’t restricting themselves to the virtual computer world anymore.

Some, including members of CT Hackerspace, a mix of about a dozen 20-somethings and older who met at Panera Bread, have banded together with colleagues across the country in enclaves called “hackerspaces.”

In rented rooms or old industrial spaces, like-minded hackers are meeting to share information, computing power and equipment while working on projects that can range from testing Internet security to creating clothes illuminated with light-emitting diodes.

And contrary to popular culture, they aren’t out to break into your bank account, hack your Facebook page or steal company formulas.

“I’m not interested in taking down major corporations,” Jen Savage, a 20-something hacker and member of the group, jokingly said.

Some hackerspaces hold challenges to see who can crack into a computer the fastest. The goal with that code cracking is to test the fences of computer security systems in order to ferret out the weaknesses and actually improve defenses. Others, including a more secretive group in Plymouth that’s based in a private home, meet to salvage used emergency radios and “repurpose” them to broadcast as amateur radios.

Each of the spaces has a unique, shifting focus that depends on the interests of its members. Some hackerspaces are developing remote-controlled planes, while others delve into robotics. Most consider themselves think tanks to share ideas.

“Some of your next, coolest technology can come out of hackerspaces,” said Rob Limbaugh, a member of CT Hackerspace. “The goal is to collaborate.”

Part of the thrill for group members comes from solving problems, and “hacking” electronics, which means they redirect the purpose of the device.

In videos posted online, hackers intentionally short-circuit toys, such as Speak and Spells, to get them to produce demonic sounds.

A hackerspace based in Meriden lists its focus as “computer security/penetration testing, operating systems, programming languages, networking, electronics, ham radio, and pretty much anything else that our members have experience in and are willing to share.”

Most hackers hold down day jobs. Bill Saturno, group member, is a salesman in the food business, Savage is a software developer and Limbaugh is a computer administrator.

Pooling resources to rent space serves an economic purpose for the groups and also allows room for space-sapping equipment, like lathes or computer-aided cutting equipment that wouldn’t fit in the garages and basements of any one group member.

“A $5,000 laser printer is not something I could afford on my own, nor have the space for in my apartment,” Savage said.